Plan to protect six iconic Aussie regions hits 'brick wall'

EXCLUSIVE: Three years after launching a simple plan to protect critical habitat, experts have been left frustrated by Australia's bureaucracy.

Left - a kangroo near Nowra during Black Summer. Right - an aerial view of Port Macquarie.
The plan would have protected forest on the NSW South Coast (left) and close to Port Macquarie (right). Source: Getty

The plan had been simple. Experts wanted to use a simple two-word concept to protect six landscapes on Australia’s east coast that were harbouring plants and animals on the verge of extinction.

What was remarkable about the locations is they acted as refuges during and after the devastating Black Summer bushfires for iconic species like koalas and greater gliders — populations of both were listed as endangered in the aftermath of the blazes.

So three years ago, World Wide Fund for Nature-Australia experts began working with Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) lawyers to create a legal framework to protect around 1.4 million hectares of unburnt land they believed was important to survival — four areas they believed would meet government definitions of "critical habitat."

But this critical habitat protection plan has hit a major snag and the two organisations have released a damning report Bushfires, Bureaucracy and Barriers which details issues with bureaucracy and “ineffective” conservation laws.

They found it was near impossible to protect critical habitat because although it’s mentioned in legislation in every jurisdiction, it isn’t actually clearly defined. And there are other problems:

  • Identifying it is not mandatory.

  • Protections are limited.

  • Incentives to safeguard it on private land are underused.

Reflecting on this, WWF-Australia’s Romola Stewart described trying to use existing legal provisions to protect habitat to stop extinctions as "like banging our heads against a brick wall.”

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Critical habitat is land that a species needs to survive. The idea was created 51 years ago in the United States when President Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act into law. Australia borrowed the concept and there are now mechanisms in every jurisdiction which should in theory protect it.

Related: Australia's extinction crisis announcement labelled a 'major disappointment'

EDO special counsel Cerin Loane recalled the original plan contained in the 2021 report Defending the Unburnt was to use this existing legal tool to protect habitat that they deemed critical to the survival of species following the 2020/2019 bushfires.

“If you're in an extinction crisis and you've committed to no new extinctions, or you want to even reverse biodiversity decline, a logical thing to do would be to protect the habitat that species needs to survive. It’s not rocket science,” Loane told Yahoo last week.

“We shortlist species where we thought had been so impacted by the fires that their habitat is critical. We thought, let’s go to governments and say: Look you've got these laws, so let's do it. But we found that the laws weren't really working.”

The areas conservationists had hoped to protect were Gippsland-Eden, NSW South Coast, Yengo-Wollemi, NSW North Coast, Nymboida and Border Rangers. They stretch across the east of the country and are home to animals devastated by the bushfires including koalas, lyrebirds, platypus, gliders, quolls and flying foxes.

Left - a map of the areas that EDO and WWF want protected. Right - a burned hill.
Environmentalists are calling for better protection of key areas which survived the Black Summer bushfires. Source: WWF/Getty

Australia has the worst mammalian extinction record in the world, and there are over 2,000 plant and animal species facing extinction that we know of — experts believe there are likely many other insects and small reptiles that have vanished without anyone realising. In NSW, it’s expected that koalas will be extinct in 26 years, and 500 more listed species won’t see out the next 100 years.

But it’s not just NSW that is under the spotlight in the report. The report details what conservationists say are regulatory “failings” across NSW, Victoria, Queensland and the Commonwealth that need urgent fixing to prevent more extinctions.

Where laws did exist they found them to be underused. Researchers found data had been collected which could warrant listings for habitat of more than 60 species under the Commonwealth’s Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, but despite this no new areas had been added to the register in 20 years.

Looking at the mess of critical habitat laws, Loane believes one answer is actually quite simple and that would be to enforce protection of these areas. “If we are really serious about protecting critical habitat, and therefore stopping species extinction, we probably need to make it mandatory,” she said.

The other essential change would be to redefine what critical habitat means, because if you look at the legislation across all Australian jurisdictions, it’s confusing.

“We need to clearly define critical habitat, because it's defined differently across all jurisdictions and no one's really clear what it is. And some of the definitions are circular like it defines itself by then referring back to itself. So we just need a clear definition,” Loane said.

“Is it really our role to do all the investigating, figure out what the species are that need protecting and then ask governments to do it? Or should it just be a bit more of a proactive thing that governments lead?”

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